This country has a rich history of watchdog journalism. Even before the founding of this nation, free speech and freedom of the press have been hallmarks of our society. Over the years, we found the need to limit certain types of speech because they were deemed detrimental to the well-being of the society. For example, you can’t shout fire in a crowded movie theater, unless there actually is a fire. You can’t print things about someone that are false. You don’t have the right to say hurtful things which would damage a person’s reputation in his or her community. These we have seen as valid restrictions on free speech. But now there is an all-out attack on free speech in this country.
Since the early days of this administration, there has been an effort to marginalize the voices of dissent found in what has been called the alternative media: talk radio, blogs, websites, and of course, FOX News. With the advent of the web, true news junkies like me have been able to find alternative sources for the information they want about the world around them. Starting with Rush Limbaugh in 1988, conservative voices began pushing back against what has been perceived as a liberal bias in journalism. As Rush’s popularity grew in the late 80’s and early 90’s, he started to shine the light of truth on stories that could not find airtime on so-called mainstream media outlets like the national newspapers and network news shows. Then in 1992, Rush highlighted a couple of stories involving corruption in the House of Representatives: the House post office scandal and the House banking scandal. The latter of these was a story that had “legs,” as we in the biz say. It was easy to understand and everyone could relate. Members of the House would write checks on their accounts in the House bank and the bank would honor them regardless of how much money was in the member’s account. As a result, several members of the House were overdrawn to the tune of tens of thousands of dollars! There was no penalty for this and there was no indication that the members had any intention of paying the amounts back. As the outcry grew, the House Ethics Committee singled out 22 of the worst offenders, 19 of whom were Democrats. At this point, the House had been controlled by Democrats for 40 years. After these scandals hit, due largely to Rush’s spotlight, and because of some opportunistic moves by Newt Gingrich, the leader of the Republicans in the House, Republicans took the House in the 1994 elections! This was the first time the alternative media had an impact on politics in Washington.
Then, in 1997, when Matt Drudge broke the Monica Lewinski story on his website, DrudgeReport.com, alternative media was on the map for good. Some of the other successes include the exposure of Dan Rather’s use of fraudulent documents to smear President Bush. This was just weeks before the election in 2004, and was reported on many blogs including Free Republic, Little Green Footballs, and Powerline. Another big story that year was John Kerry’s service record, which the alternative media found to be exaggerated or fabricated entirely by Kerry. (Not to demean his service, he did go to Vietnam and he did serve his country!)
As the reach of the internet grew, so did the reach of the alternative media. But now the playing field is changing. As many of you know, I have been working in television and radio for almost 30 years now. Some of these years have been spent working in television newsrooms at local affiliates in the Tampa Bay area. I was always amazed to walk into the newsroom and find new producers hovering over their local newspaper, searching for news items to cover. For many years now, the print media has dominated what we see on our TV screens each evening. When it comes to national news and the news networks, it is the New York Times which has had the ear of the national media. Followed closely by the Washington Post (who broke the Watergate scandal back in the 70’s), the Wall Street Journal (for financial news), and the LA Times (so we can keep track of those west-coasters). But the print business is fading. . .fast.
As the all-news cable networks began proliferating in the mid-90’s, so began the 24-hour news cycle. Now you didn’t have newspapers just reporting in the morning and the big networks reporting at 6 and 11. You had continuous coverage, 24 hours a day. The cable networks were an extension of what the mainstream media outlets were doing. They would generally follow the lead of the print media. Until the alternative media started their ascendancy. Unlike the other news channels, FOX News would actually report many of these news stories that could only find a home in the alternative media. In the last 13 years, FOX has found an audience that has helped it dominate the ratings over all their competitors. On some nights, the FOX primetime lineup beats CNN, MSNBC, CNBC, and Headline News combined!!
In the last few months, FOX has been the only one to air extensive coverage on some rather important stories:
Glenn Beck’s investigation into the background of the man who was in charge of creating “green” jobs, Van Jones, resulted in Mr. Jones having to resign.
FOX News’ airing of videotapes in which ACORN workers were shown coaching an admitted pimp and prostitute on how to gin the tax system so they could deduct their business expenses and count their underage El Salvadoran sex slaves as dependents. This was particularly damaging to the President, since he has spent most of his career working with ACORN. One surprising moment in this escapade was when Charlie Gibson, the long-time anchor of ABC World News admitted he knew nothing of this story! Amazing!
In the wake of these scoops, the New York Times admitted that they were out of touch with what was going on over at FOX News. They didn’t understand how FOX had been able to scoop them so easily. Well, this frank admission had repercussions all the way up to the halls of the White House. If the New York Times has decided they need to pay more attention to the kind of stories FOX News is doing, the White House is in BIG TROUBLE!
So out come the attack dogs. Anita Dunn, White House Communications Director, has been leading the charge both in appearances on TV and on the White House blog. But the heat was turned up when Rahm Emanuel, White House Chief of Staff, and David Axelrod, Senior Advisor to the President, made simultaneous appearances on CNN and ABC’s Sunday morning news chat shows. They both made the point that they didn’t think that FOX News was a “real news” organization. That meant they intended to treat FOX News differently than the other networks.
While this is unprecedented behavior from a White House to single out a news organization as an enemy, what came next was even more shocking. During their respective interviews, they both served notice to the other networks and news organizations that they could be next. Appearing on CNN, Rahm Emanuel said, “more importantly is not have the CNN’s and the others in the world basically be led and following Fox as if that what they’re trying to do is a legitimate news organization.” If that’s not a warning, I don’t know what is!
I think this is an admission that the news cycle is now being driven by FOX and the other alternative media outlets and that the influence of the old guard media is diminishing. As circulation of the big newspapers continues to dwindle, so does their influence. If you couple that with their admitted obliviousness to very important news stories, you have a totally irrelevant news organization. That’s what’s happening to the New York Times and others.
So here you have the White House demonizing the one network they need to reach prospective voters with their message, and embracing an increasing irrelevant system. And what’s more, they have sent a warning to the old guard that they shouldn’t try to respond to the increasing pressure from their competition, otherwise they will be marginalized too. Perhaps the White House isn’t the best place to take advice from on how to respond to criticism, since they have not been able to maintain the President’s approval rating which has dropped from over 70% at inauguration to under 50%!